When Pigs Die

Life in the Time of Coronavirus

Trigger warning: I get a bit graphic this week. If you don’t believe that meat is murder, or you’d rather not think about how that bacon arrived in your pan, you may want to navigate off this page now.

Today, I’d like to take some time to talk about pigs. Yes, pigs. Not those of our fellows who may be a bit slobby or coarse, but actual porcine, squealing oinkers. Hogs.

This is not a pleasant topic, as anyone who has had a whiff of a pig barn or a feed lot without a gas mask can attest. Economics comes into the mix, yet another topic that makes many of us ill. To top it off, any discussion of pigs is emotionally loaded from the get-go. We love our bacon and our barbecue. But we’d really prefer not to think about how these tasty morsels arrived on our plates. And while our only connection with pork may be picking a shrink wrapped package out of the meat case and plunking down a credit card or EBT at the supermarket check stand, lately even that transaction has fallen apart as we find the shelves bare in the age of coronavirus.

There are those of us of the Jewish and Muslim faiths who don’t eat pork for religious reasons, and tend to find even the thought of pigs a bit disgusting. Vegetarians such as myself have even further objections, so I will be the first to admit to the difficulties of discussing this topic in a dispassionate and neutral manner. I can’t. But neither am I willing to turn my head away and think pretty thoughts.

Recently, I began to hear of a disappearance of pork and other types of meat from supermarket shelves as a result of the closure of big processing plants in the Midwest, including giants Smithfield and Tyson. (Some have since reopened under executive orders.). These facilities had become hotbeds of coronavirus infection among employees working in an occupation that decidedly does not lend itself to social distancing. When I started to see articles and recipes touting meatless meals pop up in mainstream media, that’s when I decided it was time to try to find out more about what’s going on here.

I remember how, back in elementary school, I first discovered the poetry of Carl Sandburg, who famously described Chicago as “hog butcher for the world.” So what better place to start, I thought, than the Windy City.

It did not take me long to locate an article on the disconnect between the surfeit of pigs on Midwestern farms and the paucity of pork on store shelves. To my surprise, however, the piece in the Chicago Tribune was not locally written, but carried from The New York Times.

Heartland states such as Iowa and Minnesota are the epicenter of the crisis of too many pigs and nowhere to sell them. The fallout of the coronavirus pandemic has caused hog farmers to run out of barn space and, in desperation, to resort to killing their pigs and either burying the carcasses or putting them through the wood chipper. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are lost as unsold pigs are turned into compost. As Steinbeck wrote in The Grapes of Wrath more than 80 years ago: “Slaughter the pigs and bury them, and let the putrescence drip down into the earth.”

This state of affairs has been hard on pig farmers, not only due to the financial devastation it has wrought, but also due to the emotional devastation of farmers compelled to kill the animals they worked so hard to raise. Farmers are used to shipping off their bounty to the big meat packing plants for slaughter, not to having to kill the beasts themselves.

I found it fascinating to learn the methods of murder used. One farmer sealed the cracks in his barn and piped in carbon dioxide gas through the vents. Another loaded up his gun with ammo and methodically shot each of his pigs in the head. The Times reports that it took him all day to do the job.

This is known as “wanton waste,” usually illegal when it comes to hunters shooting a deer and leaving it to rot in the woods, but perfectly lawful when it comes to farmers killing off animals they own and treating the dead flesh as trash. The difference, of course, is that a state’s deer population is viewed as a common resource. Waste is therefore a crime against the community and the state. When it comes to wasting animals that a farmer raised or paid for, however, well, possession is nine-tenths of the law, don’t you know.

It is difficult to imagine the task of disposing of hundreds of 300 pound plus dead pigs to clear out the barn for the next generation of recently born piglets that will likely meet the same fate. So how can these farmers prevent the same situation from recurring in a few months, should the pandemic continue unabated? Short of closing up shop and filing for bankruptcy, not much in the way of prevention is in the offing. The best that farmers can hope for is some measure of mitigation. “Managers supervising the sows have killed about 125 baby pigs a week, or 5 percent of newborns,” reports The Times.

And it’s not just pigs. After all, the big meat packing plants process poultry, too. On the east coast, in Delaware and Maryland, about two million chickens were killed and their bodies “disposed of” last month. It is easy to forget that these were living, breathing, clucking birds that, up until a few weeks ago, spent their days scratching and foraging for juicy bugs and worms in the field (or, sadly, debeaked and packed into stinking cages). I know, they’re just chickens, who cares? I’ll take a leg and a thigh, please.

So where does this leave us from an economic perspective? It’s a matter of making ends meet, of bringing together supply and demand. While industry does its best to create demand, lest the fickle winds of consumer taste abruptly shift direction, this is not a case of the public suddenly losing interest in eating meat. Far from it. It’s the supply side that’s the issue. Supermarkets have resorted to putting up signs announcing limits on the number of packages of meat each shopper is permitted to buy. In much of the country, Wendy’s has none of its famous square hamburgers for sale, having run out of meat.

The meat supply is slowly increasing as some of the packing plants reopen. Now it’s a matter of whether sufficient PPE and social distancing measures will be employed to prevent employees from getting sick. Meanwhile, Congress is considering increased aid to farmers and the federal government has agreed to purchase some of the surplus meat. But first there has to be meat. In other words, first it is necessary to turn those pigs into bacon, ham and sausages instead of into compost.

As The Times reports, the problem is that, outside of the meat packing giants, there is not much demand for live pigs. Everyone wants bacon, but no one knows how to butcher a hog.

This disconnect between the beast and the pan has developed over a hundred years or more in the United States, prior to which families routinely raised their own animals, then killed, butchered and ate them. You knew exactly where your meal came from. Back in the nineteenth century, Dickens pointed out that a man toasting sausages in his fireplace could not but help think fondly of the pig that, but a few days earlier, was still squealing out behind the house.

Today, by contrast, eating meat has become an antiseptic process, totally divorced from its origins. When we put food into our bodies, we no more want to know where it came from than we want to know where what comes out of our bodies goes once we flush the toilet.

There are still deer hunters out there who butcher their own venison for the freezer, and a few have taken a live pig off the hands of a desperate farmer. The Times article even points out that some have purchased live animals from hog farmers and have paid to have them butchered before donating them to charitable organizations. And some farmers have even tried to sell pigs to individuals on Facebook and Craigslist.

I say it’s time for more of the meat eaters among us to step up and put their money where their mouths are. Where are those who mock the animal ethics movement by referring to PETA as People Eating Tasty Animals? Your pork fix awaits you on the hoof in Iowa and Minnesota.

Mask pulled up over my nose, I enter Wal-Mart only to pass by a guy in a T-shirt that reads “All God’s creatures have a place in this world, right next to the mashed potatoes and gravy.” Why isn’t this wiseass buying some of these surplus pigs to eat with his spuds?

Beyond the horror of the hundreds of deaths among our loved ones that we are experiencing daily, the coronavirus has also served to point out the folly of our ways and to rub our noses in it. It’s time for those who talk the talk to start walking the walk.

Updates:

“Is Pork Essential?” Los Angeles Times, May 29, 2020.

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